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Master Naturalists: Spread the word: Attwater's need saving

By By Paul and Mary Meredith
March 21, 2013 at midnight
Updated March 20, 2013 at 10:21 p.m.

These young Attwater’s Prairie Chickens are part of the captive breeding program that seems the best chance to save the birds from extinction.  When able to live on their own, they will be released in Coastal prairie habitat to reestablish a self-sustaining population of this endangered species.

"Booming" -N- "Blooming," the 19th annual Attwater's Prairie Chicken Festival, April 13-14 at Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, near Eagle Lake, celebrates the endangered birds and the efforts to save them from extinction.

Typically, when someone mentions Attwater's, one thing they know is that the bird is threatened with extinction. Another may be that the birds exhibit "unusual" habits.

What's unusual about their behavior

Courting time involves males conducting an elaborate courtship ritual to attract a mate. A group of males has a lek, or booming ground, where males gather and perform. The lek is often a flat area with short grass - sometimes even an artificially-maintained area - say, dirt road. It's often used year after year for courtship. Each morning and evening, mid-February through May, males gather at the lek to protect their part of the lek and to perform their "dance."

The website of the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge describes their performance as this:

"Holding their tails erect and wings drooped, they inflate their air sacs, then drop their heads to deflate the sacs with a low sounding "whur-ru-rrr" while stomping their feet extremely fast. Jumps and charges at other males are interspersed throughout this booming activity. It's hard work to attract a mate."

Once a female chooses and mates with a male, she leaves the area to nest in a shallow depression among the sometimes taller grass. If her nest is destroyed early enough in the mating season, she can return to mate again.

The majority of females' eggs are typically destroyed by predators (examples - possums, skunks, etc., even domestic dogs and cats). Sometimes even heavy rain can lower the number of chicks hatched. Chicks eat mostly nutritious insects, but may peck plants, flowers, seeds as they grow.

Why there are so few Attwater's now

Perhaps the biggest factor is the lack of their habitat. Their habitat is coastal prairie, and such areas have become cities, towns, farmland, etc. Attwater's is not the only species affected.

What's happening to help Attwater's? Captive breeding

A captive breeding program, seems to professionals, the best chance to save the Attwater's, because there are so few Attwater's surviving. Chicks were first hatched at a wildlife center near Glen Rose. Several zoos and a wildlife facility now help raise hatchlings. When chicks can survive on their own, they're moved to release sites on the refuge and elsewhere. They are acclimated on their new home site to help them adjust.

Prescribed burning, related efforts

Prescribed burning helps remove some invading plants and promotes the native grasses' more vigorous growth. Removing brush by fire from Attwater's habitat also means predators lose some of their hide-outs.

Refuge staff harvest native grass seeds from the surviving virgin prairie in the fall and then plants them in former crop fields. In this way, the refuge is bringing back the prairie. The process is slow, but it is paying off.

Sources:

Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge; Fish and Wildlife Service;

Lockwood & Freeman, "The TOS Handbook of Texas Birds;"

Sibley, "The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior;"

Tveten, "The Birds of Texas"

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at paulmary0211@sbcglobal.net.

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